Cal Poly Pomona President Allegedly Interfered With Campus Criminal Investigations

Soraya Coley


The president of Cal Poly Pomona has routinely interfered with high-profile criminal investigations at the university, including a 2017 incident when she prohibited campus police from searching a professor’s home as part of an embezzlement probe, according to a whistleblower lawsuit.

The 25-page civil complaint filed by university police Sgt. Marcus Simpson accuses President Soraya Coley of systematically blocking such probes to protect the school’s reputation and preserve her job, which she has held since January 2015.

“The university has a historical and continuous pattern of preventing criminal wrongdoing from being reported to the (Los Angeles County) district attorney in order that the university does not receive negative publicity,” states the lawsuit, which was filed last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Simpson also claims he and other officers who challenged Coley about not reporting criminal activity and changing police reports were retaliated against.

The suit, which names Coley, Cal Poly Pomona Vice President Christina Gonzales, interim university Police Chief Scott VanScoy and former California State University System Chancellor Joseph Castro as defendants, seeks $10,000 in damages for each instance of retaliation.

Cal Poly Pomona officials deny the lawsuit’s allegations.

“The university believes that the lawsuit is without merit and that the allegations substantially misrepresent the facts,” said spokesperson Cynthia A. Peters. “We have at all times operated legally, ethically and transparently.”

CSU system officials declined to comment further about the specific allegations because the matter involves pending litigation.

“CSU takes very seriously any and all allegations of misconduct, policy violations and fiscal improprieties,” Michael Uhlenkamp, a spokesperson for the system, said in an email. “When any such allegations are brought to our attention, we take appropriate action in response.”

The lawsuit follows a whistleblower complaint from Simpson and four other campus officers filed with the CSU system in May 2021 against Coley and Gonzalez alleging malfeasance, fiduciary incompetence and unethical leadership.

The suit, first reported by Cal Poly Pomona’s student newspaper, the Poly Post, cites several instances in which Coley allegedly attempted to thwart or prevent criminal investigations at the university.
Embezzlement probe abandoned

In one instance, according to the suit, Cal Poly Pomona officials became aware in February 2017 that a professor was embezzling grant money to purchase personal items and finance a European trip unrelated to school activities.

Campus police investigators were preparing a search warrant for the professor’s home in Long Beach when Coley allegedly ordered the agency to halt its probe.

“Due to the investigation being stopped by defendant, no documentation regarding this incident was submitted to the Los Angeles County District Attorney or any other prosecuting agency,” the suit says. “This is despite the fact that upon the initial investigation, it appeared that serious crimes had been committed.”

The allegations against the professor, who was not identified in the lawsuit, appear to align with those detailed in a 2018 investigative report from CSU system auditors involving reimbursements from the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation to a faculty member.

At the time, the faculty member, identified only as “Employee A,” was co-director of the California Center for Land and Water Stewardship.

From July 31, 2011, to Aug. 23, 2016, according to the report, 28 payments totaling $40,576 were reimbursed to either the employee or in the name of her husband, .

It wasn’t clear from the documentation whether Cal Poly Pomona Foundation officials were aware the individual being reimbursed was the faculty member’s husband, but they knew the reimbursement was for purchases she made using his credit card.

Additionally, the auditors were not always able to determine if the professor’s travel reimbursement claims were appropriate or in accordance with acceptable policies because, in some instances, they were submitted months or even years after the travel occurred.

For example, nine separate reimbursement claims were submitted on May 11, 2015, for transactions that occurred as far back as April 10, 2012, more than three years earlier.

The professor used foundation funds to purchase hundreds of items that were shipped to her home, including dozens of planters, approximately 200 bags of container mix, trellises, a composter, a mulcher, canning supplies, cookbooks, a cheese-making kit, and a NutriBullet blender.

Questioned about the business purpose of the items, the professor said they were related to a project and the pending publication of a paper exploring whether the perceived value of growing food is greater if the grown food is cooked or canned.

Auditors also found that the faculty member improperly used foundation funds to pay a student for research involving the breed of dog that she owned and to run errands related to her dogs.

Simpson’s claims echo those of former university police Lt. Aaron Eaton, 52, who retired in August 2020.

Eaton recalled traveling with former university Police Chief Dario Robinson to the Long Beach home of the professor suspected of embezzlement. Their initial trip to the house was to get a legal description of the property to add to a search warrant that was expected to be served later.

“I believed full well that we were going to go back maybe within the next week and serve the search warrant. That didn’t happen.” Eaton said by phone Friday.

“Several weeks to maybe a month later I asked the chief, ‘What’s going on with that particular investigation?’ and he said that it was no longer being investigated,” he said.

Eaton said he believes the case was dropped so the university could avoid “bad press.”

After pressing on the embezzlement case and raising issues of malfeasance, he said he stopped receiving information from Robinson on other cases. Eaton claims his relationship with Robinson was fine until he started pushing back on university leadership’s interference in criminal investigations.

“Once Dario realized that I wasn’t going to participate in some of those types of things that they were doing, then it became obvious that I was the enemy,” he said.

Starting his career in 1991 with the Montclair Police Department and later serving 15 years with the Long Beach Police Department, Eaton came to Cal Poly Pomona in 2016 as a lieutenant. He said his experience at the university was unlike any other he had experienced working in law enforcement.

“I think the university puts itself on a different level than other organizations,” Eaton said. “They believe that the activities or criminal activities that happen on a campus are or should be contained on the campus. They believe that they have an overriding administrative way of doing things and rarely do they want it to be investigated criminally.”

He said he left the university due to “ongoing retaliatory actions for the things that I was standing up for.”

Ultimately, no criminal or administrative action was taken against the faculty member, who was allowed to retire from Cal Poly Pomona, according to Simpson’s lawsuit.
Don’t publicize embezzlement

Campus police also allegedly encountered interference from Coley in February 2020 amid allegations that Jeanette Bernardette Paredez, an accounting specialist at the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation, had embezzled nearly $1 million over two decades.

Paredez stole the funds by entering her mother into the university’s processing system as a vendor at the foundation’s Kellogg West Conference Center and Hotel and used phony invoices to pay for services her mother had not performed, according to federal court records.

Paredez pleaded guilty in February 2021 to mail fraud and filing a false income tax return. She was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $1.1 million in restitution.

Simpson, who at the time was in charge of the patrol and investigation divisions, alleges Coley ordered changes to the police department’s criminal report so she and the university would not look bad if details about the report became public.

The changes “ensured that it did not appear that Coley or other university administration had failed in their supervision, or other duties, that led to the embezzlement taking place,” the suit states.

Efforts by the Southern California News Group to obtain the police report were unsuccessful.

Coley, who previously served as provost and vice president of academic affairs at Cal State Bakersfield for 10 years, also allegedly forbade the police department from issuing a press release on the embezzlement case.

“Coley specifically did this because she wanted to distance herself from the situation, fearing that it may get her fired,” states the suit. “Thus, she tried to hide the fact that she was on the board of directors of the foundation at that time, and that she should have taken actions to ensure such illegal conduct did not occur.”

Cal Poly Pomona officials insist there was no attempt to cover up the embezzlement case.

Information about the theft was shared with the CSU Chancellor’s Office, the CSU Board of Trustees Audit Committee, the foundation’s Board of Directors and, when the investigation was complete, the Cal Poly Pomona’s Associated Student Senate, Peters said.

Coley said in a May 10, 2021, email to the whistleblowers and other campus police personnel that she was “sickened” by the embezzlement and took appropriate action once it was discovered

“In doing so, my intention was not to cover up or obfuscate such wrongdoing — rather, to accurately convey the context for such occurrences, especially in matters concerning Cal Poly Pomona’s stewardship of public resources,” she wrote in the email obtained by the Southern California News Group. “As a result of this case, we used the opportunity to fully investigate the foundation’s business and accounting practices and to strengthen internal fiscal controls to prevent future improprieties.”

Coley also disputed claims by the whistleblowers that she is a heavy-handed manager or prone to meddle in police investigations.

“I feel compelled to address your characterization of my leadership style as one based on fear, as it is antithetical to my core ideals and philosophy,” she said in the email. “I am guided in this work by my beacon statement developed in my first administrative role, to remain student-centered, faculty and staff-focused, and community-minded.”
Prosecutors asked to drop case

However, Simpson alleges those lofty ideals didn’t stop Coley and Gonzales from obstructing Cal Poly Pomona police in February 2020 in the prosecution of a student suspected of filing a false report for identity theft.

Although the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office had already filed charges against the student, Coley and Gonzales ordered then-Police Chief Robinson to order a detective to ask prosecutors to drop the charges, the suit says.

“The handling district attorney stated the request is unethical and could cause other future criminal case dismissals and advised that their office would proceed absent new exonerating information,” according to the suit, adding that Gonzales and Coley potentially violated state law prohibiting witness tampering.

The suspect later wrote an article in The Poly Post alleging racism by the police department in its investigation of the incident.

“Despite the fact that the newspaper article was filled with inaccuracies regarding the investigation in which defendant Coley was aware of, she failed to make any response to the complaint,” says the suit.
Plan for kangaroo court

In response to the incidents detailed in the lawsuit, Coley and Gonzales proposed forming an internal “kangaroo court” involving a committee that would decide if a criminal case should be submitted to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution, according to Simpson

However, Simpson and Robinson advised Coley and Gonzalez that a case-screening committee would be unethical and illegal,

“In response, Gonzales said she had previously used this type of internal process at one of her previous employers, the University of Colorado at Boulder,” the suit states. “Upon investigation, it appeared that this was not accurate.”

Simpson spoke to an assistant deputy district attorney about the legality of the proposal.

“The District Attorney agreed with the assessment and stated it violated the District Attorney’s role of deciding who would be prosecuted … and was improper,” the lawsuit says.